As Sea Lions Wreak Havoc, West Coast Fishermen have Few Options

The previously declining sea lion population has rebounded in recent years, engaging West Coast fishermen in a seemingly endless struggle for food.

Sea lions eat the catch out of fishermen’s nets, taking the opportunity for free, easy food whenever possible. However, the animals also significantly harm the net, which can be very expensive to replace. Hungry sea lions are also known to chase boats, forcing fishermen to spend extra money on fuel.

Small bombs are the current method for sea lion control, but before that, fishers used shotguns. Until the late 1950’s, Washington, Oregon, and California fishermen freely shot at sea lions attempting to steal their catch. When the species’ population plummeted in the 1960’s, conservationists stepped in. Then-president Richard Nixon signed into law he Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, allowing the sea lion population to triple between then and 2008. The population growth has continued, and now, the resurgence is a huge nuisance for West Coast and Alaska fishers.

In addition to eating fishers’ daily catches, the sea lions have blocked people from mooring their boats. Earlier this summer, a pair of sea lions snatched a number of pet dogs from the piers. In Westport, WA, watchers have reported between 200 and 300 sea lions on the docks at a time. Astoria, Oregon, attracts far more.

Fishers have used non-lethal deterrents since the 1970’s, but seal bombs, regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, became a popular choice in the late 20th century. Research indicates these explosives are only somewhat effective in fending off the predators, and many are concerned the bombs pose a significant threat to other marine life.

As a result of the bombs’ relative ineffectiveness, fishermen are resorting to guns once again. A National Geographic report found that between 1998 and 2018, around 700 sea lions were found with gunshot or stab wounds. However, the penalty for killing a sea lion can be a year in prison and a fine of close to $30,000. Many think this is the last option for fishermen in the area.